No Accident, page 1
Copyright 2013 Dan Webb. All rights reserved.
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This book is fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, places or events is coincidental.
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Table of Contents
About the Author
Howard Cummings looked in his rearview mirror and saw the black coupe pressing forward through a staggered caravan of drivers. The coupe was catching up.
What kind of jackass buys a sports car with an automatic transmission? Howard asked himself.
Now the coupe stood beside him at the traffic light.
The same kind of jackass who revs his engine at a stoplight.
It was a warm December day, and both drivers had their windows down. The coupe’s churning motor was impossible to ignore, but Howard wouldn’t be baited into a drag race. Howard wouldn’t turn his head. After all, the driver had to know that Howard’s car was faster. Probably just caught up to get a closer look.
The light turned green, and the coupe sped away. The driver’s shaggy blond head emerged from the open window to shout at Howard, “See ya, pops.”
The coupe roared off toward the traffic ahead. Its transmission did the driver’s thinking for him, shifting too smoothly and too soon. Howard knew that chasing after the car would be immature, but Howard was only forty.
Up ahead, the coupe jumped from lane to lane like an injured beetle flinging itself across the dirt. Howard accelerated in pursuit.
Howard’s ex-wife had complained ever since their first date that he was a dangerous driver. He was not. Behind the wheel, he was like a skier carving a path down a backcountry slope. His driving was just the opposite of the vengeful lurching in traffic that coarsened life in L.A. His driving was beautiful.
Howard hoped the driver of the coupe was getting a good look in his rearview mirror as Howard’s low red roadster traced a smooth path forward through the scattered traffic. Howard drew closer until three cars in three lanes all driving the same speed blocked the way. Then, for one impossible moment, he crossed the double yellow line and faced the charge of oncoming traffic. Right there, on the coupe’s left, Howard showed the kid how to downshift to pass someone.
Howard darted back to the right side of the street, only a foot or two ahead of the coupe’s front bumper. An angry clamor of car horns rose up and then faded behind him.
In his rearview mirror, Howard spotted the coupe caught in a throng of cars whose timid drivers all reacted to Howard’s progress by slowing to a crawl. Howard let his eyes linger there.
I hope you crash into an ice cream truck, he thought.
When his eyes returned to the road, there was no time to stop. The truck in front of him—a battered pickup carrying overfull bags of lawn cuttings—strained against its squealing brakes. Momentum carried the truck’s rear wheels up and off the ground. From the perspective of Howard’s low-slung sports car, the heaving back end of the truck was the mouth of a monster gaping wide to swallow him.
Alex Fogarty did the math in his head again. Five first mortgages, five seconds. One house vacant . . . Why did his mind turn this way when he was driving, or when he was bored or trying to fall asleep? Five property tax bills due in February . . . But he wouldn’t be paying any insurance bills—screw that, he was upside down.
Alex had forgotten about Zeke Andrews. “Sorry, daydreaming,” Alex said. He glanced away from the freeway to give the reporter a sheepish smile. He’d been driving Zeke around all day, and they’d touched virtually every freeway in L.A. County, and Alex had run out of things to talk about.
At least his pickup truck was comfortable to drive. The truck was like his houses, Alex thought, an alluring, wasteful indulgence whose market value was now less than the debt he owed on it. Zeke didn’t know all that; Alex kept his truck clean.
“Fraud,” Zeke said emphatically. “This morning you told me it’s everywhere.”
“Insurance fraud is everywhere in L.A., if you know where to look,” Alex said. “Most people don’t.”
“So I’m guessing you don’t either,” Zeke said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “After sitting in this pickup truck all day, all I’ve learned is that the life of an insurance investigator is pretty boring.”
Alex thought that was ironic, because it was Zeke who proposed this ride-along, after Alex, one night over beers, retold stories of some of his more colorful investigations. Zeke was always looking for something interesting to write about for The Los Angeles Chronicle. Alex kept putting Zeke off—not every day as an investigator was interesting, and in truth maybe the beers had led Alex to exaggerate his past cases a little bit—but Zeke wouldn’t hear it. Finally, Zeke went over Alex’s head and pitched the idea to Alex’s boss at Rampart Insurance, who loved it—“Free publicity,” he told Alex, “and the story’ll make us look good because Zeke’s your friend, right?”
Right—the kind of friend who sells you out to your boss when you don’t give him the answer he wants.
“You asked for this, remember?” It was too late in the afternoon, and the glare from the winter sun too bright, for Alex to try to hide his annoyance. “The best way to get war stories from an accident investigator is to talk to an accident investigator, not follow him around. Much as I love your company, Zeke.” Zeke didn’t react, so Alex pushed him a little more. “So you’ll go halvesies with me on gas for today, right?”
Zeke lifted his little notepad with metal rings around the top and threw it to his feet. “This isn’t a joke for me, Alex. I should be off investigating corporate corruption. But no, The Chronicle can’t afford shoe-leather journalism anymore, we can’t piss off our advertisers. So you’d think it should be easy enough to find some two-bit insurance scam artists and write about them.”
Zeke’s small, wiry body was now crouched over his knees in despair.
“I’ve told you plenty about the insurance business,” Alex said. “You can make a story out of that, can’t you?”
Zeke didn’t respond. After an awkward period of silence, Alex said, “Got an interesting case this week. Remember that big accident right before Christmas? The one where a guy plowed into a gardening truck and van?” Alex knew he shouldn’t talk to a reporter about an open case—even when the reporter was a friend, sort of—but he couldn’t help himself. He felt somehow responsible for Zeke’s melodramatic disappointment.
Zeke’s eyes brightened. “An impromptu drag race, right?”
Alex nodded. “Eight dead.”
“And let me guess, your company insured the guy who was driving like an idiot.”
Again Alex nodded. Zeke took a handheld recorder from his jacket pocket and held it an inch in front of Alex’s nose.
Alex recoiled. “Put that thing away.”
Zeke cradled the recorder in his lap like an injured doll. “I just want to get the quotes right.”
“I can’t go on record about a pending case. This is background.”
Zeke groaned as if physically pained. “The first hint of excitement all day, and you just tease me with it. Are you trying to make me miserable?”
“I’ll go on the record when I can,” Alex said.
“I really can’t afford many days without a good story, you know?” Zeke’s expression drooped a little, then he added, “Things are tough at The Chronicle.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “I remember what it’s like. Remember how much we complained as rookie reporters?”
“And we didn’t know how good we had it,” Zeke said. “Any job stinks when you’re coming out of college. But believe me, the paper’s not like it was when you were there.” Then in a hushed voice he said, “The paper’s losing money.”
“I know it,” Alex said. Everyone knew it. Alex felt even worse now that he had gotten Zeke excited again for nothing.
Their voices fell silent, and a rhythmic hum from the road took their place. This was a good stretch of freeway. There were grooves in the road and grooves in the tires, and the soothing sensation was like someone had amplified the sound of fingernails running sideways along corduroy. On bright afternoons like this, a good road made you sleepy.
“So what do you think caused that Christmas accident?” Zeke said.
It took Alex a moment to remember what they were talking about. When he did, he smirked and gave Zeke a long, sarcastic look before responding.
“You mean besides stupidity?”
Alex expected the little car in front of him to keep up with traffic. Instead, while Alex looked at Zeke, the car stopped short.
Zeke gasped, Alex hit the brakes, and they both braced for collision.
For an instant the face of Alex’s last girlfriend flashed clearly in his mind. Pamela. Then his brother’s face did. Del.
The next instant the crash came, with a loud clap and then a crumple. It sounded worse than it was—the airbags didn’t even deploy in Alex’s truck—and both vehicles pulled off to the shoulder under their own power. Once there, Alex and Zeke nodded to each other to confirm they weren’t injured, then stepped out of the truck and onto the concrete shoulder of the freeway. Alex saw that his pickup, the larger vehicle, had done better in the contest, suffering just a shallow crease in the bumper with some damage to the chrome finish.
The other car was a domestic two-door hatchback, older than most models still on the road. It hadn’t had much left to lose even before Alex’s bumper collapsed its trunk space and turned the rear window into a mosaic of tiny glass gems. Zeke stood by the truck while Alex walked up toward the car. Dust and grit from the road swirled around his feet. The draft from five lanes of vehicles speeding by rocked the little car on its tires. When Alex reached the driver’s door, the glare off the window made it hard to see inside. He saw only his own distorted reflection in the window—his image short instead of tall, wide instead of lean, with a hand cupped over his brow to help him see.
The occupants weren’t making a move to exit the car—a bad sign. There were five of them inside, two in front and three in the back. Alex lifted the handle and opened the door.
“Are you all right?” Alex said. He spoke slowly and clearly to the driver, who responded with only a dazed look and then pulled himself up and out of the car. The front seat passenger also got out and ambled toward the back of the car, favoring one foot. A rolling chorus of pained groans came from the three in back.
“This guy looks hurt,” Zeke called out, talking about the limping passenger.
Meanwhile, the driver leaned on his elbows against the roof of the car, with his head in his hands and his back to Alex.
“I don’t think he speaks English,” Zeke said. They were all young Hispanic men, and the driver was muttering something in Spanish.
Alex leaned over and asked the driver in fluent but accented Spanish if he was hurt. The driver looked back with some surprise, and replied that he didn’t know. He asked to see Alex’s insurance card. Alex nodded and walked back toward the truck.
“What did he say?” Zeke said.
Alex didn’t reply. Instead he approached the passenger with the limp. The passenger had reached the back of the car, where he leaned against its crumpled rear end, holding his ailing right foot a few inches off the ground. Alex squatted by the man’s feet. The man wore jeans and old sneakers. The driver came around to watch.
Alex asked the man if Alex could touch his ankle. The man nodded, and as Zeke and the driver looked on, Alex lifted the cuff of the man’s jeans and put a thumb and forefinger on either side of the ankle. The man winced. “Let me help you,” Alex told him in Spanish.
The man smiled weakly, and Alex lifted him under the shoulder and hoisted him upright so that he was standing on one foot. Alex was taller than the man and was able to lift him without straining. “Just a moment, I have something that will help you,” Alex said, and the man thanked him.
At that point, Alex turned as if to walk toward his truck. Under his breath, he said to Zeke, “You ready for a little excitement?” Zeke’s expression showed confusion. No matter. Alex spun back around toward the man with the limp and with both hands pushed him squarely in the chest.
“What the hell are you doing!” Zeke said.
The man was as shocked as Zeke. He backpedaled with both feet until he regained his balance, then crouched like a wrestler, ready to defend himself.
“How’s the foot?” Alex said quietly.
The man shot a glance toward his feet, then lifted one of them off the ground.
“See that, Zeke? My touch can heal the sick.”
Zeke laughed. Alex turned toward the driver of the car. “Who do you work for?” Alex said, and proposed a few names.
The driver shifted his attention to Zeke and pointed toward the three men in the back seat. “The guys in there are really hurt,” he said in English.
“I doubt that,” Alex said. “I’m an insurance investigator.”
The driver looked at Alex and then at Zeke, who now stood with his arms folded over his chest. In a flash, the driver covered the distance back to his car, hopped into the driver’s seat, shut the door and drove away. A muffler knocked loose by the accident scraped and bounced on the concrete like a can trailing from a car of newlyweds.
The man left behind, the limper, shook his fist at the receding car and called out, “José! Hijo de puta!”
“How’d you know?” Zeke asked Alex. “I thought we were screwed.”
“People don’t often sprain an ankle in a fender bender,” Alex said. “And when they do, the sprain doesn’t travel from one leg to the other like I saw it do with this guy.” Alex then turned to the man who was left behind. “What’s your name?” Alex asked him in Spanish.
“Juan,” he said.
“I’m Alex. You’re new at
“How much is he paying you?”
“He said he would pay me fifty dollars, but there’s no chance I’ll get that now.”
“What is he saying?” Zeke asked.
“Fifty dollars,” Alex said to Zeke. “This guy’s playing stunt driver for fifty bucks.”
“You mean this was all planned?” Zeke said.
“Look,” Alex said to Juan, “we’ll give you a ride home, and if you tell me some more about your friend José, I’ll give you your fifty dollars.”
Juan agreed, and they filed into the cabin of Alex’s truck, with Juan in the middle. The wide bench seat now felt like a tight fit—the air was cool outside, but they had all been sweating.
“Seatbelts, everyone,” Alex said.
Walking into a law office often made Luke Hubbard wonder why he had never practiced law. The lobby at the offices of Powers, Torres & Schwartz LLP, the fashionable Century City address, the commanding views of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, the plush furniture that had outlasted multiple recessions—on visits to lawyers, perks like these made Luke wonder why he hadn’t chosen a more stable life, a life swaddled in the comfort of regularly tallied fees and steady progress, instead of one driven by risk and consequences.
Then he remembered why: the people in a law office. Exhibit A was the secretary in the conservative suit who escorted him to the office of Leon Schwartz. She looked like somebody’s least favorite aunt—stout and middle aged with joyless eyes.
Watching the woman’s slouched walk, Luke straightened his own posture in reaction, as if he could will her to do the same. Projecting success leads to success, Luke thought. He was a tall, trim man in a fashionable, well tailored suit. His thick dark hair was sprinkled with gray at the temples. The image of success. And the reality.
Leon Schwartz’s corner office was large, cool and dark. The blinds were raised, but even with windows along two sides of the room, there was no direct sunlight at this time of day. Schwartz was a small man with a lined face and gray hair that had once been dark.
Luke found his host curled over papers strewn across his desk, scratching at them with a dull pencil. Half of Schwartz’s face was illuminated by an incandescent desk lamp that shone down on him and his work. Just shoot me if I’m still working at his age, Luke thought. The lawyer might have continued that way all morning had his secretary not quietly cleared her throat and reminded him that it was time for Mr. Hubbard’s initial consultation.